Palden Gyal reviews Avalanche, prison poems from Tibet
Editor’s Note: This post is the first in a weeklong series of articles on, and translations of, contemporary Tibetan poetry, a form which we believe deserves greater attention in English. – Alec Ash
Better known by his pseudonym “Theurang” – a mysterious imp-like creature living in high mountains, known for its mischievous intrusion in human settlements – Tashi Rabten is one of the most prominent and widely read young contemporary poets in Tibetan literary circles today.
Theurang rose to literary stardom as a student of literature at the Northwestern University for Nationalities in Gansu Province, around the politically tumultuous period of 2008, when riots shook the Tibetan Plateau. Recording his sentiments and reflections on the 2008 uprisings and the subsequent crackdown campaigns, Theurang published Written in Blood (Khrag Yig), a collection of poems and essays which was well received before it was banned. His involvement in student protests, his poetry and publications in the now-banned literary journal Eastern Conch Mountain (Shar Dung Ri), and his literary activities in general, led to his arrest in 2010 and a four-year prison sentence.
Three years after his release, in November 2017, Theurang finally assembled the fragments of the poems he wrote in prison. The collection, Avalanche (Gangs Zhogs), claims to be published by ‘International Books Publishing Company,’ yet such a publisher doesn’t seem to exist; it is likely self-published under a fictional publisher name, with an imaginary 13-digit ISBN. This is not an uncommon practice among Tibetan writers, as a way of circumventing censorship when it comes to publishing politically sensitive work.
The initial 5,000 copies of Avalanche instantly sold out, but while waiting for more prints from the press, his readers have already celebrated and started circulating some of the poems on social media. As he expresses in a letter to his sister from Mianyang Prison in Sichuan, ‘Pouring My Heart Out,’ Theurang realizes how the act of composing poetry and expressing thoughts in writing was fundamental to the tenacity of his resolve under brutal prison conditions. In a footnote to the poem, ‘The Courage of Bearing a Pen,’ Theurang describes the troubled experience of not being able to find pen or paper, searching relentlessly for something to write on while other prisoners were desperate to get a cigarette:
Where the roaring of vowels and consonants is found
You are a fine foundation of wisdom
Rays of light in the intellect of Thonmi Sambhota1,
Swords of courage in the hands of our Tsenpos!2
Ever since I pursued you,
You lifted the banner of my spirit high, and
Unnerved the core of my desires and aversions!
You are the impetus to the indestructibility of my life,
Pleasure and pain that write my surname in life,
Virtue and vice that engrave my tombstone in death!
The poems collected in Avalanche were scribbled on the backs of cigarette packets or on toilet paper. The book contains 110 free-verse poems, organized into ten categories with a rather nebulous thematic structure. As Theurang notes, some verses of certain poems were lost, but he chooses not to leave out or add anything to them. As he writes in his short afterword, “These poems were conceived and crafted while I was in that unique locale of fear and ferocity, where food tasted insipid and clothes long lost their warmth… this book comes from a special sense-sphere of letters.”
A deep admiration and love for literature, poetry and the Tibetan language vibrates throughout the volume. Avalanche offers striking images of prison life, juxtaposing heartfelt emotions of anger, love and pride. ‘Diary of the Sewing Factory’ describes half-naked prisoners stationed at their sewing machines, sweating and slogging away like “numbered robots” whose lives quiver with terror on the tip of the needles before their eyes:
With hands tethered to the sewing machines all day long,
Those naked shoulders dripping with sweat
Resemble toys running on battery power.
The only program that can stop them is the government’s hand.
Theurang also brings to light an issue of immense sensitivity in China’s penal system: that of state-sponsored slavery, converting prisons into factories. Like Theurang, many of the prisoners who are subjected to “reform through labor” (laogai 劳改) are believed to be political and religious dissidents. In a three-line poem entitled ‘Declaration of Mutiny,’ he writes:
There is no other reason
Although my hands can do the labor
My hands cannot do “reform through labor”
“Theurang brings to light the state-sponsored slavery of converting prisons into factories”
There are also a few biographical eulogies, in which he reflects upon and remembers with reverence certain Tibetan figures, including the current Dalai Lama and the poets Gendun Chophel and Shokjang. Among these is Rongye Adak, another prisoner of conscience who was Theurang’s prison mate, an elder compatriot whose moral courage and probity had a deep impact on Theurang, who expresses his admiration and respect to Adak in a long footnote.
Among the poems which have been most widely shared and commented on by readers online is ‘Those People,’ which highlights environmental destruction and mining activities on the Tibetan Plateau, “Mountains hollowed out, rivers befouled / And wildlife wiped out.” Another poem that circulated in Tibetan cyberspace is ‘Eulogy of the Courageous,’ which reflects upon the unprecedented self-immolations by Tibetans as a form of political protest and resistance to the Chinese state, recognizing their sacrifice as acts of peaceful resistance that agitate “the ungodly.”
On a lighter note, Theurang also includes a number of love poems, such as ‘My Tsomo’ – the name of a woman close to the poet but which literally means “lake.” Theurang plays with the word by juxtaposing his beloved’s name with the sacred Namtso Lake and Tsongonpo (locally known as Trishor Gyalmo) in Tibet, obscuring the message while increasing its poetic effect:
When the night is dead silent,
I long for the rich Namtso in the North, and
Trishor Gyalmo in the Northeast.
I miss the depth and purity of Tsomo.
I ache for the desolation and
Distance of the sun and the moon.
Tsomo, you are that which flows in my chest,
The waves of conflict and serenity,
The vessels and veins of my psychophysical being,
A lovely hue of affection sprouted on our karmic latencies.
Recently, Theurang composed and presented to his friend and fellow political prisoner Shokjang a tribute poem written on a length of felt rug, ‘You Who Bear the Sins of Your Dreams,’ on the occasion of Shokjang’s release in March 2018 after serving three years for his literary activities and political dissent. Now running a small teahouse in Ngawa County (Aba in Chinese), Theurang continues to write and sometimes even participate in literary events. While he does so, the state’s surveillance shadows his every movement. ∎